Archive for the 'poetry' Category

Beowulf, God, and reception

My friends Fiona and Serena have started this blog, Literary Iditarod, for vague purposes that seem to involve reading the entire canon of global literature(!), possibly to prepare for grad school. They’ll quickly move out of my comfort zone, but while we’re on the really old stuff (and specifically Beowulf, which I have read), I’ll join the conversation. I’m going off of this post, in which Serena wonders about “the hopeless muddle that is the story’s theological situation“:

…the narrator can be a Christian who is describing the events of pre-Christian times. But no. That would be too straightforward.

This is one where the textual criticism is essential. And impossible, but we have to at least understand what the situation is and why it’s impossible.

The situation is strikingly similar to Homer, where we have a text that doesn’t have a lot of precedents but also obviously describes situations considerably earlier than itself. It makes dating the thing, or even isolating and dating the various layers within it, almost impossible, but maybe what’s interesting for your purposes is that it represents a literate Christian scribe (or series of scribes) trying to make sense of an illiterate pagan society (and possibly working from an oral text, or group of texts, that he’s received). I’ve always found the “emendations” to be somewhat clumsy — as though someone went through a “pure” original text with a red pen, haphazardly adding references to God.

Then down the brave man lay with his bolster
under his head and his whole company
of sea-rovers at rest beside him.
None of them expected he would ever see
his homeland again or get back
to his native place and the people who reared him.
They knew too well the way it was before,
how often the Danes had fallen prey
to death in the mead-hall. But the Lord was weaving
a victory on his war-loom for the Weather-Geats.
Through the strength of one they all prevailed;
they would crush their enemy and come through
in triumph and gladness. The truth is clear:
Almighty God rules over mankind
and always has.
[688-701, tr. Heaney]

It’s like the part of Josephus where he’s going along describing the affairs of the Jews during the first century and then suddenly says “There was also this guy named Jesus, who was a miracle-worker, and also, he was the Messiah, and Pilate executed him but then he came back to life and did ten thousand other wonderful things.” Then he picks right back up with the history. Hmm, seems a little suspicious!

We know that such things have happened throughout history whenever one civilization absorbs the culture of another but needs to “edit” the absorbed texts to fit its own orthodoxy (the Aeneid, the Spanish inquisition, Stalin, etc… and indeed most translations). I just read Geraldine Brooks’ People of the Book, which features such a scene. Arthur Golding’s preface to his 1567 Ovid translation is an example of one manifestation of this impulse, the translator’s apologia. It’s pretty adorable:

I would not wish the simple sort offended for to be,
When in this book the heathen names of feigned gods they see.
The true and everliving God the paynims did not know:
Which caused them the name of gods on creatures to bestow.
[he explains that Mars is really intended as a symbol for aggression, Venus for sex, etc]
Now when thou readst of God or man, in stone, in beast, or tree
It is a mirror for thyself thine own estate to see.
For under feigned names of gods it was the Poet’s guise,
The vice and faults of all estates to taunt in covert wise.
And likewise to extol with praise such things as do deserve,
Observing always comeliness from which they do not swerve.

“I know it seems sacrilegious, but look, there’s actually good stuff in here if you read it as an allegory!” Golding mostly confined his editorializing to the preface, though, and allowed Ovid to speak for himself during the actual poem. The Beowulf poet just spreads this stuff throughout the text. Or is it that simple? There is a narrator character, which complicates things, plus we don’t even know for sure what sources he was working from… The “bewildering array of linguistic forms” in the surviving text suggests that it’s been through quite a few hands before it got to us, anyway.

Plenty of interesting questions, though. For whom was it composed? “As yet we are no closer to finding out why the first audience of Beowulf liked to hear stories about people routinely classified as damned. This question is pressing, given […] that Anglo-Saxons saw the Danes as ‘heathens’ rather than as foreigners.” [Richard North in Wikipedia]

Despite all the “God is the king of heaven” talk, Christ is never mentioned. Is the poet attempting to bring the Danes as close to orthodoxy as historically plausible (“nobody had told them about Christ yet, but look, at least they worshipped a single all-father deity”)?

If the Anglo-Saxon Christian editorializing is scattered throughout, both in the narrator’s voice and in the characters’, it is possibly extricable from the hypothetically “original” pagan content? Or is that a fool’s errand? Is this essentially the same as Athenian theatre and Rennaissance theatre, where you’re telling a story about your contemporary society but dressing it up like it’s long ago and far away?

It’s an interesting question, because I see two strong tendencies that would work in opposition here: A) the assumption that everybody everywhere at every time is just like us, and B) the assumption that foreigners are Other and Evil and Monstrous.

Or to put it another way, A) the Spartans in 300, B) the Persians in 300. I guess we tend to switch between these tendencies based on who the Good Guys are supposed to be?

You don’t have to look at Beowulf as a moment of reception. There’s plenty to discuss about its structure, mythic significance, poetic form, etc. But to the extent that it is a moment of reception (an Anglo-Saxon community receiving and interpreting tales of ancient Denmark) I think that — like most moments of reception — it tells us more about the receiver than it does about the thing being received.

According to this view, Beowulf can largely be seen to be the product of antiquarian interests and that it tells readers more about “an 11th century Anglo-Saxon’s notions about Denmark, and its pre-history, than it does about the age of Bede and a 7th or 8th century Anglo-Saxon’s notions about his ancestors’ homeland.” — Kiernan


I am the Pedant. I speak for spondees.

What a rotten idea to spend millions destroying
This masterful tale kids spent decades enjoying!

The Onion has a nice tribute to the greatest versifier of the 20th century — although they inadvertently highlight his genius by making some pretty clumsy errors in rhythm. Writing that stuff’s not as easy as it looks, folks.

Seuss is a joy to read. Here’s one of my favorite bits:

What’s more, snapped the Lorax (his dander was up),
Let me say a few words about Gluppity-Glupp.
Your machinery chugs on, day and night without stop
making Gluppity-Glup. Also Schloppity-Schlopp.
And what do you do with this leftover goo?…
I’ll show you. You dirty old Once-ler man, you!

Now that’s tasty.

An early draft of my undergraduate thesis contained a bizarre little digression on the nature of free verse vs. rhyming couplets:

It’s the difference between a Japanese sword routine and a juggling act. A free verse performance may be forceful and affecting, but ultimately it consists of waving words about in the air with no resistance. The couplet form is fundamentally different, incorporating countless small crescendoes and denouements, risks, recoveries, tensions and releases. The inevitability of rhyme, like gravity, can lend force and weight to one’s statements. A couplet, nicely put, is stunning in its audacity: a clever phrase seems more clever, almost inhumanly clever, when executed within such a restricted format.

Ah, I see some similarly-snooty editor at Wikipedia is with me: “Geisel generally maintained this meter quite strictly, until late in his career, when he no longer maintained strict rhythm in all lines. The consistency of his meter was one of his hallmarks; the many imitators and parodists of Geisel are often unable to write in strict anapestic tetrameter, or are unaware that they should, and thus sound clumsy in comparison with the original.”

It’s an outrage, I tell you! A horrible shame!
That these trite, tacky tentpoles should taint his good name!
Might the sacks of cash raked in by film adaptations
At least fund improvements in verse education?

Linkblogging madness

And now for something completely different!

I did promise (threaten?) poetry. Don’t worry, I won’t do this very often.

This one, like every poem I’ve ever written (dating back to 8th grade, actually, and including about three or four poems total), began first as a rhythm. It’s modeled, metrically, on Milton‘s 1653 translation of Psalm 5. I can also see in it the influence of a few other texts, like the villanelles “Do not go gentle” (Thomas) and “One Art” (Bishop) and Neil Gaiman’s bit of doggerel “Basilisk and Cockatrice: A Moral Poem” – that last one certainly occurred to me as I was writing, though I’m not sure how great its influence was. And of course, the most direct ancestor is Shakespeare’s 18th.

At any rate.

Variations on a Theme by Shakespeare
Train, LA to San Diego
July 24 2007

I’m scared of loving short-lived love
and also of cliché.
What lines can I be certain of?
Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?

I know too well tongues cannot furl.
One can’t what’s said un-say.
Afraid, I promised: “never, girl,
shall I compare thee to a summer’s day.”

But no one gains from silenced art.
So, fuck! I’ll join the fray.
With cloudless gusty furnace-heart
shall I compare thee to a summer’s day!

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“gold appearing in hands”: money, poetry, politics

ἀλλὰ κέρδει καὶ σοφία δέδεται.
ἔτραπεν καὶ κεῖνον ἀγάνορι μισθῷ χρυσὸς ἐν χερσὶν φανεὶς
ἄνδρ[α …]

But even wisdom is enslaved to profit.
And gold appearing in hands (reckless wage!) turned
that man […]

Pindar, Pythian 3.551

At Powell’s the other day, I noticed an anthology called Poetry After Modernism (Robert McDowell, ed). Since I think contemporary poetry, in its overwhelming rejection of traditional forms, has often thrown the baby out with the bathwater and created a new, equally boring, status quo, I was curious to see what the deal was with the “New Formalists” mentioned in one essay. The author was particularly enamored with Dana Gioia, author of the apparently-famous essay “Can Poetry Matter?,” and one of Gioia’s poems quoted in the book impressed me. Some research at home reveals that Gioia is an ex-corporate-executive and current chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, appointed by George W. Bush.

So I’ve been having a morning of cognitive dissonance, reading through this essay by Steve Evans, “Free (Market) Verse” and sorting through some thorny questions about art, commerce, populism, tradition, and form. These questions seem especially relevant now that I’m a member of the arts industry. I’m currently living off (running out of!) the cash award I got for the poetry I wrote for my thesis. As I begin working with Top Shelf I’m going to be intimately concerned with (and dependent on!) the principle of charging people money for art.

My thesis was centrally concerned with questions of accessibility. I may not have succeeded in my goal of writing a thesis my grandmother could read, but I’m a big fan of art that actually reaches people, and in some ways to translate is to popularize (or to vulgarize — in Latin they’re synonyms!). I wanted to get the poems out of the Classics department and into the ears of the public.

My work in comics activism/advocacy is similarly rooted in a desire for accessibility, although I hadn’t made the connection until now. I try to promote comics to people who don’t read them; I hunt for books that appeal to those readers. I’m more likely to change somebody’s life by giving them Blankets or Strangers in Paradise than Crisis on Infinite Earths. The comic book scene, like (Gioia argues) the academic poetry scene, has its head up its own ass and is busy talking to itself rather than communicating with the world.

Yet I’m uncomfortable with the idea of connections between aesthetics and politics. Does nostalgia for an old-fashioned art form imply nostalgia for an old-fashioned ideology? Is the impulse to defend the institution of rhyme related to the impulse to defend the institution of marriage? I think not, in my case at least. I think there are a few more things at work here.

I’ve been asked to write a new school song for Reed College. Writing an alma mater is one of the most public, populist things you can do. The alma mater genre, like the Pindaric victory ode, is inherently conservative — institutionally normative, you might say, or counterrevolutionary — but I love the challenge of writing an anthem that the notoriously cynical student body of Reed can proudly stand behind. (Luckily, Reed itself is weirdly conservative in many ways.) It’s the same challenge I enjoyed as an atheist at Baptist Youth Camp, serving on the worship planning committee: finding ways to create a service that would be meaningful to everyone. In my thesis, I loved the challenge of writing deliberately old-fashioned translations of old avant-garde texts for a contemporary audience.

My father once made a remark that has stuck with me ever since: I was raised in a relentlessly heterogeneous environment, in a world of apparent contradictions. A liberal & educated city in a relatively rural state, a fiercely progressive church in a resolutely conservative denomination, a lower-end neighborhood in a wealthy suburb. My brother and I are both devoted to the idea of applying high-culture perspectives to low culture, and vice versa. I tend to feel like the geekiest person in a room full of “normal folks” and the most well-adjusted in a room full of geeks. In the Taijitu, my father implied, I’m the white in the black and the black in the white.

I don’t think I’m going to figure this all out today. I don’t think that everyone who agrees with my aesthetic values is going to be someone I’m comfortable standing with. But, I realize, that’s nothing new. I’ve been preaching the gospel of heavy metal and comic books for years, and God knows I have a pretty dim view of the average metalhead and comic fan. The fun part, after all, is loving something that’s insufficiently loved by people I respect, and then teaching them to love it.

[Did that make any sense? All of these points could use some elaboration, but this has been sitting on my computer for a long time now and I need to get it out. I’m sure there’s more to come.]

1 Pindar is describing the corrupting influence of wealth on the ancient healer Asclepius, who was once paid a ton of cash to resurrect a dead man. Zeus, outraged at this violation of the laws of nature, killed him with a thunderbolt. As a freelance poet who sold his praise to the highest bidder, Pindar is very careful to denounce the evils of capitalism and conceal the economic realities of his own situation. The way he operates, the poet assures us, Pindar only writes poems about people who are genuinely his friends, and every word is deserved because his patrons really are that awesome.

Leigh Walton talks comics and maybe other arts. (RSS)
He also works for the very excellent publisher Top Shelf Productions (which does not necessarily endorse the views and opinions, etc, herein).


Header by me. Contains an interpolation of the final panel from All-Star Superman #1 by Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely. Speaking of which.